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The Logophile

August 11, 2009

logophileRecently, while trying to explain the myxolydian scale to one of my kids, I realized that all of the hobbies I’ve practiced over the years have a very rich lexicon—that is to say specialized words that have evolved, or been created, to describe something specific to that field. All the hobbies, that is, save one—writing.

When that thought first sprung to mind I nearly dismissed it. It’s patently ridiculous to think that a practice about writing wouldn’t develop it’s own insular tech-speak. But after thinking more about it, it makes perfect sense.

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that over the years I’ve dabbled in some obscure hobbies—Archery, Fencing, Role-Playing, Printmaking, Paintball, Bagpipes, Heraldry and most recently, the Harmonica. And each of these has a long list of specialty vocabulary. Truth be told, it’s one of thing I like about some of these activities…

Archery — riser, cresting, draw, doinkers, fistmele, fletching, quiver, tiller, nock
Fencing — florentine, coup lance, epee, parry, florentine
Printmaking — intaglio, gravure, pochoir, restrike, vignette
Bagpipes — birl, cran, chanter, drone, grace notes, leumluath, piobaireachd, taorluath
Heraldry — abatement, cadency, clarion, escutcheon, jessant-de-lys, rampant, talbot (I could go on for close to a thousand words as classical heraldry uses Norman French)
Harmonica — ionian, myxolydian, dorian, aeolian, glissando, pentatonic, tremolo, riff, trill

The specialized language of is a function of both small societies, and society as a whole. Fencers aren’t overly concerned about being understood by hundreds of thousand of people, because there are only a few thousand people interested in it. So if someone comes up with a term that is less than obvious, it will only benefit those who take the time to learn it. As a side effect it also helps create a camaraderie among those in the group.

With writing however the reverse is in effect. Our sole purpose is to be read and to be understood. To create specialized language is self-defeating, for who will take the time to decipher a story in a language that makes them feel alienated. Also, writers have a natural aversion to creating new words for things when a word almost certainly already exists.

Certainly there are exceptions to this. Writing has a few words we use more often than others, or words that have meanings more specific to writers than to general readers. There are also a few authors who we revere for their ability to make up new words—Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss, come to mind immediately.

What hobbies do you have (or have had through the years)? Do they have their own lingo?

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  1. August 11, 2009 3:39 am

    Not so much a hobby, but as a philosopher, there is a whole vocabulary. I’m convinced it was invented just to make philosophers sound smart, but I’m still not sure that any of them know what any of the words mean!

  2. August 11, 2009 8:04 am

    Well, I write software for a living (not the kind of writing I want to be doing for a living, but it pays the bills for now…). So, as with anything related to technology, there’s a ton of lingo. In my company, teams make up words and acronyms. I am absoltuely certain that this is done to make it impossible for other teams to know what is going on as well as to make everything seem mysterious and strange to rookies coming in from college.

    I am also an avid gardener and trumpet player. There are terms and lingo associated with each of these but I always look at their use as being nothing more than suggestions or guidelines. While there might be a dozen words for the tools which are used to dig in the dirt, the terms “shovel,” “rake,” and “hoe” are sufficient for me. If I get kicked out of the club for that attitude, then so be it!

  3. Jam permalink
    August 11, 2009 1:25 pm

    Figure skating has a huge vocabulary of technical terms, about the sport itself as well as the equipment involved. For example:

    “How did your long go?”

    “Alright. Popped my double flip and flutzed my lutz. Nearly caught an edge doing a back inside bracket in my straight-line, and my back Y-stand was on a flat. My combo-spin was good, though. I did a camel-sit-pancake-backsit, got four revs on each position, and came out of clean.”

    “Cool. Do you know when the flood’s going on?”

    “In a couple minutes, I’m not going to have time to tape my skates.”

    It takes a little deciphering, and to those outside the sport, can often sound like complete and utter gibberish.

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